Stateless in New York: A woman's life as a 'legal ghost'

Thu Sep 18, 2014 4:33pm EDT
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By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When she was a schoolgirl in Kuwait, Mona Kareem would ask her parents why she didn't have a passport and why they never left the country to visit relatives.

Kareem, 26, and her family are bedoons, from the Arabic bedoun jinsiyya, meaning "without nationality" or stateless. Like many bedoons, they are descendants of the nomadic Bedouin tribes which for centuries roamed freely with their animals across what now is Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

Many bedoons fell through the cracks when Kuwait became independent in 1961. Some did not apply for citizenship because they did not know how important it would become. Others were illiterate or could not produce documents.

Kareem said her family filed for citizenship, but never heard back from authorities.

For years bedoons enjoyed most of the rights of Kuwait citizens and Kareem's parents were able to lead a somewhat normal life but in 1986 the government stripped them of basic rights, making life far harder for Kareem and her generation and with no resolution in sight.

"Being stateless is very humiliating ... because you feel rejected," Kareem, dressed casually in jeans, said over coffee in an interview at the Thomson Reuters Foundation office in New York City.

"When you're meeting people every day who feel that there's something wrong about your identity ... it feels like bullying."

For some time when Kareem was growing up, her parents didn't tell her that belonging to her tribe meant having virtually no rights in Kuwait, the country of her birth.   Continued...